According to the website of Mark Latham’s book of quotations A Conga Line of Suckholes:
Mark Latham was the Federal Member for Werriwa from 1994 to 2005. He was Leader of the Labor Party between 2003 and 2005. Mark Latham is the author of The Latham Diaries and five other books on Australian public policy, including Civilising Global Capital and From the Suburbs. He lives in the outer suburbs of Sydney with his wife and two children.
But if you don’t know that you’re unlikely to be interested in this eccentric collection. Virtually all the good quotes (with the exception of a few from Menzies, Whitlam and Keating) and many more besides can be found in international collections like Antony Jay’s Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations. The main interest in Conga Line is what it says about its author.
Latham’s old obsession with a fellow deeply flawed and complex politician, Richard Nixon, is on full display. In 223 pages there are 37 quotes by or about Nixon, a dozen more than Jay fits into 400 pages. Curiously, several of the Nixon quotes are about his extraordinary durability in the face of large setbacks. You can’t imagine Nixon voluntarily chucking it all in the way Latham did in January 2005 (though they both turned to book writing to fill in their retirement years).
Another theme that comes up more than once is not letting your enemies get the better of you. One, from Barry Humphries, is on the back cover: ‘Don’t let your enemies dwell rent-free in your head’. And then, under ‘Hatred’, another Nixonism: ‘Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.’ It’s sound advice, in itself, but not actually the wisdom a pyromaniacal bridge burner like Latham needed to read most, which would be to forgive a little more, so that you don’t end need to avoid enemies living in your head. I’m sure I was not the only person who found this part of Latham’s appearance on Andrew Denton’s interview show sad and misguided:
ANDREW DENTON: The other person of course is Gough, your mentor, the man that stood in your father’s stead at your wedding who you said in the postscript to the book provided you with the cruellest cut of all – what was that?
MARK LATHAM: Well I found out after I’d resigned from the Parliament that he rang a mate of mine in advance of that to say I should get out. So instead of supporting me in the circumstance, he didn’t know much about my circumstances, in fact he didn’t know anything. His attitude was that I should get out of Werriwa, get out of politics altogether and hand over to Steven Chaytor who had worked for him. So I don’t know why he made that decision. From my perspective we’d obviously had a close political relationship and a personal one.
MARK LATHAM: And personal support, personal support for each other up to that point. Why he wasn’t supporting me at that point, well you’d have to go and ask him. I hugged him at our election launch because I thought it was the right thing to do and it might have been the last launch that he ever saw. So I thought that was the right thing to do, a-a-an emotion of mine but in the end he must have reached a different conclusion.
ANDREW DENTON: Clearly you haven’t spoken to him since you found this out?
MARK LATHAM: That’s right.
ANDREW DENTON: Will you speak to him again?
MARK LATHAM: Well I’m not planning to, no.
Ostracising someone for saying what you are thinking yourself seems silly, and all the more so when it is an old man who has done so much for you in the past.
There’s a big if fragile ego on show here; the same big ego that puts 32 of his own quotations in the book. But self-quotation in a book of quotations is a dangerous practice, because it invites comparison. In a section devoted to ‘Insults’ we have often-repeated but good lines from Winston Churchill, ‘A sheep in sheep’s clothing’ (on Clement Attlee), ‘A modest man with much to be modest about’ (poor Attlee again); Harold Wilson’s excellent put-down of Ted Heath, ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’; and Denis Healey on an attack by Geoffrey Howe ‘It was like being savaged by a dead sheep’. The Brits are good at this (and what is it with sheep?). But from Latham to Phillip Ruddock, on the Amnesty badge that Ruddock wears: ‘Take your badge off, Adolf’. This is primary-school standard abuse, one of the most cliched insults possible.
Unlike The Latham Diaries, I can’t really recommend this book. It’s not that it lacks good quotations, just that there are better collections available; or that Latham isn’t psychologically interesting, just that his Diaries tell us more than this volume. If you haven’t read them already, the paperback version is in bookstores now.